A friend of mine has long held firm in his belief that Brad Maynard is the team's MVP year in and year out. He's half joking yet he's also enamored with the longevity and consistency of the Chicago Bears' punter. For 10 years as a member of the navy and orange, Maynard has consistently used his accuracy and distance control to pin opponents deep in their own territory.
Since signing with the Bears in 2001, Maynard has been one of the best directional punters in the game. His specialty is angling the ball toward the sidelines and trapping the opposing team inside their own 20-yard line. Only twice the past 10 years has he finished outside the Top 11 in punts inside the 20, and has led the league in that category three times over that span.
That aspect of his game can't be overlooked. When an offense stalls near midfield, it's highly valuable for any team to have a punter that can stick the ball deep in enemy territory. The difference between needing 95 yards for a touchdown and 80 yards for a score can be the deciding factor in many games, especially late in the contest. Maynard's directional punting makes life difficult for opposing offenses and it's the reason he's had such a long tenure in Chicago.
Yet his ability to punt the ball out of bounds is tempered by his lack of distance. He's never had a strong kicking leg, even early in his career. Since 2001, he has placed in the Top 10 in the league just once in average yards per punt. The results have gotten increasingly worse the past four seasons. From 2007-2010, Maynard has finished 22nd, 30th, 28th and 32nd respectively. His performance last season was the worst in the NFL.
P Brad Maynard
The former-Ball State product will be 37 this season. Many punters work well into their forties, so Maynard could have another five to 10 productive years ahead of him. Yet it's obvious by the declining yardage numbers that his leg is aging. While he's an outstanding asset when punting from midfield, he can be a liability when the Bears' offense stalls inside their own zone. More than one Bears fan would like to forget some of the punts he's recently produced when forced to do so out of his own end zone.
Because of this, the Bears signed P Richmond McGee this past February, before the lockout went into effect. McGee played four years at Texas University as a punter and kickoff specialist, as well as handling part-time field goal duties. He was first signed briefly in 2008 by the Philadelphia Eagels then spent time on the Chicago practice squad at different points in the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
With no real NFL experience to fall back on, it's hard to say what McGee's strengths and weaknesses are. Yet the fact he handled kickoff duties in college means he probably has a big leg, which most likely played a strong part in Chicago's decision to sign him. Robbie Gould is not known for his booming kickoffs and Lovie Smith puts a premium on field position. If McGee has the leg to lengthen the field for opposing teams, his value really increases.
If the team elects to bring Maynard, currently a free agent, back to camp this year, he'll most likely have to beat out McGee for a roster spot. Coaches will then have to decide whether it's more important to have a kicker who can boom it or one that can place the ball where it needs to go. If McGee can show special teams coordinator Dave Toub the ability to kick directionally, he'll have a good shot at making the team.
Yet don't count Maynard out. In 2010, he was recovering from right hip surgery conducted in January that year, which only allowed him time for simple rehab leading up to the season. He said he could not even walk correctly until nearly eight weeks after the surgery. He should be fully healthy heading into 2011. A fierce training camp competition could be just the thing to get the veteran back on track.
As always though, whether or not the Bears will re-sign him has much to do with money. Maynard made $1.27 million last season. As a 14-year veteran, he'll command just as much in 2011. If the team were to sign McGee instead, it could save around $800,000 in cap space.
Yet this is a team ready to win now. As such, it would be very risky to enter the season with an unproven rookie. Maynard may be lacking in distance but his ability to pin back the opposing offense holds a lot of value. When the game is on the line, and the Bears need to stick the opposing offense deep in their own zone, which punter would they rather call on? Having a healthy Maynard available at a crucial moment like that is worth the extra $800,000.
Sign him and feel good about it.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport com. To read him every day, visit BearReport com and become a Chicago Bears insider.